Sunday, January 1, 2017


For the same reason we understand that characters in novels, short stories, plays, and all filmed drama are not real persons, we accept the fact that what these characters say is dialogue rather than conversation. 

The price of entry in both cases--acceptance of a character and what the character says--is, as Samuel T. Coleridge put it, "The willing suspension of disbelief."  

In other words, our relationship with characters is either empathetic or suspicious. Whether we continue to turn pages or, if watching a TV drama, keep our hands off the channel tuner, depends on the degree of empathy between us and the characters.

Dialogue is supposed to sound like conversation, but one analogy comes to mind in the relationship between pulque, which is the raw, newly fermented sap of the agave cactus and its upward distillation, tequila. Dialogue is the distillate of conversation. Characters use dialogue as a part of their action toolkit.

An ironic sidelight emerges when the focus shifts from fiction to nonfiction. There are numerous cases where the letters, diaries, journals, and other modes of conversation have found their way into biography and autobiography, but in larger measure, the dialogue in memoir and biography is not by any means a courtroom transcript, rather it is a drama-infused replication of the individual's intent.

Dialogue is intent in action or, if you will, dialogue is action. To take this proposition to the next level, the mot telling and memorable dialogue is about something other than what it seems to be, which is to say dialogue is about subtext. The more likely the possibility of some elephant being hidden under the throw rug of a given living room, the greater the possibility of incisive and memorable dialogue.

The less dialogue sounds like what it's surface pretext is about, the greater the lift it will give to the narrative momentum of a story. The more unspoken inferences can be drawn between the exchanges of dialogue, the more tense, suspenseful, and engaging the story.  

After Nora Helmer, by all accounts the protagonist of A Doll's House, makes the bank loan which gets her husband off the hook, she begins hearing her inner voices, questioning her and her behavior. These are important views of her inner life, the things she cannot bear to share with any other character in the play, which is of paramount significance because it lets us infer there is no one she can approach to discuss her inner and outer conflicts.

When Nora sees how the ending moments of the play are the only possible steps and course she can take, we will have inferred from this inner dialogue of hers that she has NO OTHER CHOICE than to do what, as the curtain falls, she does.

In a real sense, we root for or empathize with characters because we have early on inferred some of the buried elephants within their living room.

Saturday, December 31, 2016


A significant difference between the major characters, which is to say protagonist and antagonist, in the plot-based story and the character-based or -driven story can be summed up in the portmanteau word "backpack."

Protagonists in the plot-driven story are distinguished by their major goal, which resides outside their inner landscape. Thus a salesperson, struggling to meet a sales quota against the risk of being fired for underperformance, an aging athlete, struggling to achieve a permanent starting position on the team, against the risk of being sent "down" to the minor leagues; a homicide detective, nearing retirement, haunted by a particular unsolved case, against the risk of having to live out retirement with the knowledge of that failure; a psychiatrist, struggling to effect a depressed patient's "recovery," against the risk of that patient's eventual suicide.

All those examples can provide satisfactory outcome in the dramatic sense, and yet each in its own way is a cliche, dating at least as far back as the narratives of Horatio Alger and his rags-to-riches memes, but of course even farther down the dusty roads of history. There is nothing inherently "wrong" with such tropes; they are in large measure a part of the cultural heritage of hard work and individual determination being the sine qua non of civilized psyche.

The external goal resembles the joke patter of the comedian, where the pattern is the set-up--"A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar," the introduction of the complication, then the payoff/surprise/punchline.  The payoff may indeed be funny, possibly hilarious. 

But there is nowhere to go afterward. The comedian needs a new set-up, immediately, or the audience will grow restive.  A plot-driven story may dazzle with its intricacies, its deft manipulations of the dramatic genome as it accelerates the risk to the narrator and causes the reader to fear, repeat, fear the eventual triumph of the antagonist.

Nevertheless, the plot-driven story, on close inspection, borders on, if not trespasses into cliche. The reader is in effect following such authors for the thrill of the trespass rather than the emotional impact of the story.

The character-driven story is no less goal oriented then the plot-driven narrative, nor is there any less appreciation of the thrill of the trespass. But, unlike the comic's need for a new set-up, or the plot-driven writer's need for a new, downward spiral of risk to the protagonist, another dimension presents itself--the inner goal. Character-driven stories become two or more parallel lines in simultaneous development where the plot-driven story limits itself to one orbit of momentum.

A protagonist in a character-driven story should have an external goal, otherwise there would be no story. Nevertheless, the protagonist also has an inner desire or goal, sometimes a goal buried so deeply within that the character is not consciously aware of it, seemingly fighting the awareness of it with each successive scene until--well, until Macbeth kills the king or Walter White kills his first antagonist, on his way toward the inevitable, explosive confrontation with  Gus Fring.

The evolution from plot-driven to character driven narrative can be traced in three novels you've been studying in recent months, written by an author who got his start with the plot-driven story. The novels are, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and The Fury, and Light in August,all by William Faulkner, wherein each allows you to see a cast of characters with outer and inner goals, each a particular journey along the cusp of cliche, with sudden, unanticipated lapses into an awareness of being doused with the chilly waters of recognition.

Friday, December 30, 2016

I See by Your Outfit That You Are a Cowboy

If a character is to have any lasting meaning for the reader, that character must have a well-defined comfort zone which the reader can see in place before it is threatened. The reader must then be able to eavesdrop when the character receives the threat.

By watching the character's response to the threat, the reader begins to invest in the character, initiating empathy if not outright sympathy. This investment is the result of a careful manipulation from the writer, who is using with words, images, and subtext the equivalent of notes, keys, and durations used by the composer of music.

Perhaps the reader has felt a similar threat as the character now experiencing the potential invasion. Even more to the point, perhaps the writer is aware of this dynamic and has contrived to exacerbate it. Perhaps--ah, perhaps the writer has gone so far as to show what the character had to overcome in the past to arrive at the comfort zone now under attack.

The reader may not have that very day won a military battle such as Macbeth did, not was given an in situ promotion by the king as Macbeth was, nor indeed witnessed three witches, making a remarkable prediction about him. But the reader has likely nourished some secret dream or agenda; perhaps even as in Macbeth's case, the hidden dream was buried within the safety deposit box of the subconscious. No?

Remember Cora? Who could forget the Cora from The Postman Always Rings Twice because Cora is such a splendid example of the dynamic. Remember how Cora, achingly attractive, had to settle for demeaning waitress jobs, allowing herself to be pawed and grabbed in Depression Era Los Angeles. Along came Nick, a good-natured older man, with an offer of marriage. 

Cora knew a life line when it was being thrown her way. Now, she is Mrs. Nick, and has achieved a comfort zone, but it is only a first- or second-floor comfort zone in Cora's high-rise hidden dreams. For the time being, she can put up with being Mrs. Nick, in a sense half-owner of the restaurant Nick owns; she can even put up with Nick. Until Frank Chambers arrives.  As they would say in the theater and film worlds, "Cue the threat."

In similar fashion, Cora is a nudge in the gut of comfort for Frank, as in how much of a threat to Frank's status quo comfort zone is the intense sexual chemistry he soon realizes when they are together. 

Another interesting comfort-zone chemistry involves Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, who, prior to Mr. Macbeth's encounter with those three remarkable witches, were in the comfort zone of having their own manor, a certain comfortable status, and a place in the affections of the king.

With a slight tweak of the dramatic formula, you could call Macbeth a precursor if not a prequel to Breaking Bad, wherein Macbeth before the witches holds the same dramatic value as Walter White before his diagnosis with cancer. Macbeth strives toward his genie-out-of-the-bottle vision of himself as king. In order to get there, he murders a king and a best friend along the way. And isn't Walter White something to behold on his way to becoming Heisenberg?

Could you have said this any better, yourself?  Of course you could've, but for the moment, here it is, to ponder and apply to the narrative you've entitled I See by Your Outfit That You Are a Cowboy, a title that once again comes to you from the lyrics of a song, this time The Streets of Laredo, a lyric and title that came jumping out at you when one of your characters cautions your protagonist, "Stop being a goddamned cowboy when there's no rodeo."

Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Not Going to Warn You Again," She Warned

Like many of your generation, you became aware of repetition on a meaningful level when the time arose for you to commit to memory the so-called multiplication tables. 

Not going You can recall teachers who, in the act of presenting repetition to you in the context of an aid to memorization, referred to the meme of how the you-of-the-future will appreciate and understand the importance of what the you-in-the-now were about to undertake.

Experience may well be the best teacher, a truth to be expanded upon by pressing the repeat button; thus more experience becomes an even more superlative teacher. But such is the nature of repetition that doing over something successful the first time through is given short shrift.

To set the matter to rest, you're not sorry you committed the multiplication tables to memory, nor are you all that glad. If anything, you wish you'd not stopped with twelve, burning into memory the thirteen and fourteen because it now seems to you how you have more occasion to plumb the depths of a thirteen- or fourteen-times X than any of the lesser predecessors.

This could also imply another truth: had you taken your memorization beyond twelve, you might this very December day in 2016 have no irritation for the times in recent years when you had to rely on mathematics rather than memory.

You are in fact saddest about the things you repeat without deliberation, rather by accident, which means you have to go back to rewrite, rephrase, even rethink your way out of what you consider the clunky sound of an unwanted repetition. Nothing sounds more as though you'd fallen asleep during a composition session than unintentional repetition.

On the other hand, a well-orchestrated repetition of a word or phrase adds to the emphatic cadence of a sentence. You've no qualms about admitting as a personal,  primary goal in composition, the wish to convey a meaningful and accessible outcome when you offer fact, opinion, or argument.

Repetition becomes important to you in direct proportion to your growing awareness of the significance of every word in a story. Unnecessary words become metaphoric albatrosses, weighting down the dramatic effect, increasing the unwanted sense that the material before you in effect stops the story in order to describe.

The writer Junot Diaz has done some intriguing things with the use of footnotes in fiction. Lesser writers than he stay away from such variations in convention, but Diaz, in his most recent novel, has made them seem an integral part of the narrative, their typographical distance from the actual text to the contrary notwithstanding. His use was daring, but from his success, you could see how he knew when to take the risk.

Most other writers, yourself included, need to consider with care the temptations to deviate from conventional format, reminding themselves how the goal of fiction has evolved from a telling, descriptive mode to one where the reader is situated inside the story, where the story appears to be taking place around not only the narrator of the text but the reader of the text.

The right repetition enhances this interior emphasis; the wrong repetition--one that seems to be an oversight or moment of editorial laziness--reminds the reader of the fragile apparatus story is.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Status Symbols

In recent classes, you found yourself making a statement with the metaphoric equivalent of creating static electricity when sliding over the seat covers of an automobile, then creating a visible shard of static electricity when you reach for and touch something metallic.

The statement has to do with the absolute need of a scene to show tangible recognition to the need for the presence of power and/or status. In earlier times, you made a similar statement about the need for any given scene in any given story to cause the evocation of at least one emotion. During those earlier times, you were at least far enough along the trail of your own learning process to count suspense as an emotion.

You're well beyond such homilies and take-for-granted recognition in which a scene must, among other things, advance the story or in some way define the growth of one or more characters. You're well beyond to the point of noting the tremendous load the scene must carry in order to be successful, immersed in the awareness of all the basic elements or dramatic DNA traces necessary for a scene to qualify as a scene.

The difference between a scene and event is every bit as extraordinary as the difference between a protozoan and a human. While both are living organisms, the latter is exponentially more complex and intraconnected. An event may have one or two dimensions, a scene can reach the state of being an extended moibius strip, the Klein bottle, itself the embodiment of properties and conditions a simple, two-sided object such as a sheet of manuscript paper cannot express in physical form, but can serve as host for a physical description of the complexity.

Scenes in which more than one person appear have a built-in status, a notion you first heard in a valued political science course and a part of your undergraduate minor. "Whenever two or more persons gather," the instructor said, "a political condition arises." You snapped alert, notions of status and power whirling about in the interstices of your thought process. 

You recall spending your spare time over the next few days compiling a list of such bi-polar circumstances. Indeed, these are bi-polar circumstances, even among identical twins. In such cases, the status or class awareness may shift (all the better for story dynamics) as differing aspects of personality and ability assume prominence.

We read story to experience these shifts in status and power, following the shift with the same kind of excitement inherent in a close contest, election, or sporting event. Unbalanced status or power is always a splendid entry into a story; we form allegiances with the characters (example: Ivanhoe) rooting for one to gather the power or status to bring down the other, to restore in effect what may have been usurped.

Upset status has long been recognized as one of the major starting points for kind of story in which the goal is to show at least one character restoring enough self- and ethnic or national esteem to satisfy our inner scale of acceptable stasis.

Class, power, and status are manifest in every culture, thus such tropes as the wisdom or respect for one's elders, the notion that youth must be served, and a concept you first investigated in depth in a course in anthropology wherein the clash between generations. The young generation wants its inheritance in order to work its own epic successes and discoveries while at the same time the older generation understands how much status and power it loses after passing over the inheritance.

You are acute these days to individuals opening doors for you or seating you at the head of a table or serving you first. These activities are tributes and conventions of politeness. Although you have held doors open for countless others, referred to yet others as Sir or Ma'am, offered your seat or position to elders or those for whom you had a strong sense of respect, you neither sought such recognition for yourself not felt entirely comfortable when they were extended to you.

This sense of what you think of as status pluses and minuses had its beginning, so far as you can recall, before your move from Los Angeles to what appears to be your new permanent home, Santa Barbara, and your participation in the writers' baseball game, in season played weekly. On those times when there were not enough of your tribe present, you relied on "drafting" neighborhood kids, all too willing to join in.  Your memory takes you back then, to your late 30's, edging into fourth decade, and a youngster named Ronnie Gunderson.

On the day you have in mind, Gunderson was acquired for your side, with the thought to move George Bishop, generally as capable a second baseman as could be wanted, to shortstop, with young Gunderson at second.  There you are, in your customary center field, positioning yourself under a tall, lazy fly ball, waiting for it to drop into your glove, already aware of your next move, which would be to throw it to George Bishop, covering second, against the potential of the runner on first base thinking to advance himself to second after your catch.

"He's tagging up," Gunderson called, warning you in acceptable baseball dialogue of teamwork. But he didn't leave it at that. Gunderson had to add, "Sir," to his warning and the additional admonition, "Throw to second, sir."

You did indeed throw the ball you'd just caught on the fly, sending it over to George Bishop in time to send the base runner scurrying back to first base. After the final out of the inning, when you were trotting in toward the sidelines with Bishop, you couldn't help saying, "Little fucker's got to go."

"He calls everybody sir," Bishop said.

"No excuse," you said. "You come out here to play or get called sir?"

Bishop, whose editor you were, had an answer for that. "I come out here to play ball, grow a bit older, and resent those in our midst with no traces of arthritis."

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

First Door on Your Left--er, Right

Not long after delivering a brief commentary to a group of writers on the need to look out for and subsequently edit out habit words--words one tends to repeat without purpose or intention--you found yourself using one of your favorite habit metaphors.

Your own major habit word is "and," which you use to season early drafts of written material the way your late pal, Barnaby Conrad, seemed to season everything he ate with Tabasco. Your   go-to habit metaphor is "down the rabbit hole," the very portal Alice used to gain entry into Wonderland and, subsequently, "Through the Looking Glass."

You could evoke a shaky image of Gertrude Stein by saying "A door is a door is a door," nevertheless a tribute to her observation about roses and then, all things. Instead, you're content to leave the relevant matter at this: A door is an entryway to a place; a portal is an entryway to story.

Within any given place, however humble or luxurious, there is bound to be some potential for a story, gathering its stormy forces together, waiting to achieve escape velocity before inflicting itself upon one or more invented characters. So far as you are concerned, the choice of portal instead of door makes a direct accusation: Story awaits beyond this point. In fact, story awaited Alice the moment she fell through the rabbit hole. 

Story awaits the reader who follows a character to the point of confrontation with a portal, is overcome by need, curiosity, or a combination of the two, then takes that one irreversible step beyond.

One of the more significant subgenera of science fiction deals with intriguing landscape of time travel, wherein a character has encountered a means for returning to the past or moving forward in time to experience the universe as it will become.

During the past year or so, you've spent a good deal of time reading, rereading, and teaching such novels of William Faulkner as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom; and Sanctuary, most of which devote some time to the past, all of which have emphatic references to the past.

The convergence of your awareness of "down the rabbit hole" as a habit metaphor, your reading/teaching of Faulkner, and the free-floating notion in regular orbit about you of the mystery novel being the paradigm for the effectively told story bring you to a new way of seeing the portal.  As a consequence of this convergence, you now believe (not necessarily in order of importance):

1. A story needs an entry portal.

2. All story is alternate universe.

3. All mystery is alternate universe

4. Opening lines and paragraphs are portals.

5. Your own process for composing fiction has a portal.

6. To put yourself in a position where you can engage your process, even if it is to add only a line or two to the work in progress, you must find the portal, then enter it.

7. There will be times when you will not find the entry portal at home.

8. There will be times when the entry portal to process is in a coffee shop or other place with distracting ambient noise.

9. You will need to concentrate above the distractions and ambient noise in order to achieve the necessary relaxation to enter the process zone.

10. Tenseness and grim determination do not unlock portals.

11. Your own process requires a sense of mischief or amusement, without which the odds of producing keepable pages lessen to a significant degree.

12. Mischief and amusement are not alternate universes for you; they are necessary conditions and sufficient conditions; they ratify the worth of writing in the context of writing being a difficult task.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Alternate Reality: Substituting Certainty with Doubt

Approximately twenty years before you began teaching at the University of Southern California, you were a participant in a promotional prank in which you, dressed in a yellow toga, and wearing a curly blond wig that made you look something like Harpo Marx, were tied to the beloved and iconic statue known to all loyal USC students and alumni as Tommy Trojan.

Your yellow toga was embroidered with the word Scop, which in its original usage, meant an Anglo-Saxon bard.  "The din of revelry and the scop's sweet song..." Beowulf

You were somewhere on the editorial ladder of Scop, the campus humor magazine, at the other end of Los Angeles, UCLA.  Scop was also an acronym for Southern Campus [of the University of California] Official Publication.

Scop and the USC humor magazine, Campus, indulged a profitable rivalry.  After you were tied to the statue of Tommy Trojan and doused with soda water spray from siphon bottles, you were offered towels from the USC gym and escorted to a station wagon that was property of the Associated Students of UCLA, where, with other members of the Scop staff, you drove toward the western quadrant of Los Angeles, where UCLA is still located. You never thought to return to the USC campus, much less with any notion you would teach classes there for so many years, meeting extraordinary students, remarkable-to-the-point-of absurdity faculty mates and, among these, many individuals who would become dear friends.

You also encountered administrators, including a major archaeologist, who sat through a number of your classes and became a close friend, a lieutenant dean who wrote a series of mystery novels in which you appeared as a detective from the Bronx Police Department, and another administrator who was upset with you for having engaged the dean of your school in a conversation about the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, having discovered he was a linguist.

Nothing works so well as a reminder of the literary genre called alternate universe than a conversation about an experience you had, a place you visited, a book you read, a gathering you attended.  You listen with the interest of politeness to the individual with whom you're having the conversation.

Your degree of politeness is in direct proportion to your estimation of the individual with whom you converse; she or he could drop some detail or observation that will add to your own interpretation of the same experience, making it better or, possibly, quite worse if the other person appears to have got more out of the experience, seen more in its significance, taken away more from it that you.

The You of whom you speak is a veritable sponge and simultaneous Wikipedia of information, a veritable compendium of Jungian archetype, Freudian symbol, and the simultaneous exegesis of critics and observers from as far back as Aristotle to the more recent likes of Empson, Focault, Zinn, Suntag, and Didion. This is the You at top form, the You you are more often than not used to being.

More often than not is the key here; it is not a fix condition.

The downside of this acceptance of self is the vision manifesting itself in this theoretical conversation you're having with the strong possibility of envy, struggling to get beyond mere envy, then coalesce into Envy that the person with whom you engage this theoretical conversation is on so many levels a more accomplished viewer/reader/audience than you. "I was at the event of which you speak," the theoretical conversationalist has told you, "but I don't recognize any of the details you provide, nor do I interpret the various outcomes the way you do."

In summary, the conversation other appears to be saying, "I saw so much more than you did, much of it contrary to your vision, that I wonder if you were actually there.  Perhaps you got it second hand, say a newspaper report. Perhaps you heard a different account of it. Perhaps there are two books with the same title. 

Perhaps there was some strong coincidence such as Ed McBain using Jaberwocky in one of his titles, which would then cause it to appear that he had the idea of using that title in one of his titles long before you did, when the opposite is true (because he told you so)."

Each individual has the capacity to evoke a personal universe, a world filled with types of individuals, event, and outcomes reflecting how the world is to him or her. As an example exaggerated to demonstrate the range of its potential, the home furnishings, clothing sizes, and choices of personal possessions would be notably different were such items be in a universe orchestrated by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar than were they detailed by the actor Danny DiVito.

Each individual projects a discreet Reality, an alternate reality to all other realities, an alternate reality to yours. Sometimes, as when you read work as remarkable and textured as Philip Pullman's Golden Compass trilogy, you are deeply engaged, not only in the trials and tribulations of its protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, you are sent off on the speculative journey of a parallel universe set in a landscape close to the one where you taught for thirty-four years, the University of Southern California, where Philip Pullman has caused you to see, through his creation of Lyra Belacqua, the idiosyncrasies and otherness of a world you recognized as idiosyncratic and other, but in a patchwork quilt rather than any thematic throughline.

You continue to speak of the mystery novel as the one a beginning writer needs to study for the need to focus on the most serious matter at hand, the dramatic resolution of the crime triggering the onset of the story. But you must add something--a parallel or alternate universe something--to the equation by which you measure the effects of the universe upon you and the relative unlikely scenario by which you can have any effect on the universe unless, like the watched pot you sometimes watch as it comes to boil, the effect of you watching the universe will produce some result.

The alternate or parallel universe narrative helps us see the universe as the drop of water sees the ocean, simultaneously drawn to it while frightened by its enormity and, taking you back to those thirty-four years at USC, hard put to control your laughter at the memories of all that seriousness, braided with all that self-importance and otherness.